by Dr. Cecelia Porter
Contributing Classical Music Critic, The Washington Post
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the Musikverein
The final weeks of the 2012 Wiener Festwochen (Vienna Festival) sped to the finish line in the historic Musikverein’s magnificent Grosser Saal. Sir Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, led the Vienna Philharmonic (which also serves as the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera) in its finest hours with electrifying versions of iconic works by Brahms, Schumann, and Webern.
The performance mesmerized the audience. In Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90, Rattle brought moments of delicate contemplation merging into great swatches of passion tinged with a golden patina.The conductor also smoothly integrated Brahms’ characteristic metrical shifts into the work’s opulent textures heightened by dazzling counterpoint.
For Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, Rattle remained true to the work’s Expressionist cast condensed into a glistening set of minutes-long ventures into ever-changing instrumental colors. In an impromptu interview after a rehearsal of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97, Rattle told this writer he had warned the concertmaster that “I love this symphony so much that you will have to rein me in.”
The orchestra responded, nevertheless, with even more passion than in the rehearsal- -not unbridled, but with precision and the Philharmonic’s singular tone of depth, roundness, and golden resonance. For the Finale, a solemn, Bach-like sacred chorale theme resounds in the brass, giving rise to its description as “Rhenish,” referring to the long-held view of the Rhine River as sacred. Later in the Festwochen, PhilKlang (“The Vienna Philharmonic Sound”), the orchestra’s chamber music ensemble, performed in the Staatsoper’s beautiful Mahler Saal, framed by elegant Gobelin tapestries, for a performance of chamber music by Louis Spohr, Jean Françaix, and Ernst von Dohnányi.
This was a general admission concert for which the capacity audience of enthusiastic, attentive listeners had virtually stampeded into the hall in order to get good seats. No wonder, for it was a truly virtuoso performance. In Spohr’s Septett in A minor, Op. 147,woodwinds, strings, and piano brought a wide array of instrumental timbres, most striking in the clarinet’s chalumeau (lowest) range. Every movement was played with a regard for its unique character, as in, for example, the sharply highlighted dance pulse of the Scherzo. And legatos were as smooth as whipped cream.
In Françaix’s technically challenging Trio for clarinet, viola, and piano, the ensemble subtly underlined the element of parody in the Scherzando and jazzy Presto. The group’s sensitively phrased account of Dohnányi’s sonorously varied Sextett in C major, Op. 37, explores brooding discontent with symphonic depth, the Finale bursting into a satiric waltz. In an interview before a rehearsal, the Philharmonic’s Geschäftsführer and first flutist Dieter Flury emphasized the special importance the orchestra attaches to its international audiences.
Those of us in Washington, D.C.--Austrians and Americans alike--look forward to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s return in the near future, along with solo recitals, such as last February’s stunning performance at the Austrian Embassy here by Flury. The Philharmonic at the State Opera The Vienna State Opera heightened the Wiener Festwochen with its brilliant opera productions. In June, this writer heard three outstanding performances--all with capacity audiences. The State Opera’s director, Franz Welser-Möst (also the director of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra) conducted a thrilling and captivating new production of Verdi’s popular classic Don Carlo.
Australian Simone Young, the first woman to conduct the Vienna State Opera (she is also the director of the Hamburg State Opera and the Philharmoniker Hamburg), led an electrifying version of Richard Strauss’s gripping Modernist opera Elektra. Spanish conductor Guillermo Garcia Calvo commanded a powerful, convincing performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, one of the most violent of his melodramas. Lucia di Lammermoor Numerous musical, dramatic and literary works have been based on the Romeo and Juliet theme, the psychological core of which is the dilemma posed by family feuds --virtual tribal warfare with all its emotions and motivations.
Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) is laced with robust and inventive melodies that implant themselves forever in audiences’ memories. From the overture on, Calvo guided the orchestra with tenderness, always remaining sensitive to the melodious inflections of Donizetti’s bel canto essence. In Calvo’s hands, the Vienna Opera’s supremely effective production of Lucia missed none of the composer’s dramatic impact of ill-fated love amid the confrontations between two bitterly rival Scottish clans.
Calvo’s pace closely conveyed the intensity of Verdi’s melodrama; and, in every aspect, the production was a powerful one, cogently relating Donizetti’s tragic musical narrative. The splendid cast lucidly portrayed Donizetti’s characters as totally human, not excluding their failings: baritone Marco Caria (as Enrico), coloratura Diana Damrau (as Lucia), tenor Piotr Beczala (as Edgardo), tenor Ho-yoon Chung (as Arturo), bass Sorin Coliban (as Raimondo), soprano Juliette Mars (as Alisa), and tenor Peter Jelosits (as Normanno).
Damrau’s Ardon gl’incensi, the Mad Scene, (accompanied by a sterling solo flute) fully expressed a fevered sense of horror and disillusionment. The justly famous, seamlessly sung sextet Chi mi frena? and Beczala’s impassioned Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali were some of the other dramatically and musically overwhelmingmoments of the performance. The chorus was equally convincing in its full-bodied and resonant outbursts of jubilation during the opera’s wedding festivities.
The sets reflected not only the regal brilliance of the Lammermoor castle but also the strong emotional undercurrents of fear, cunning and the dark, unearthly implications woven into the plot, as in the opening scene, a misty, threatening forest. Elektra Composed immediately after Salome (1909), the plot of Elektra is similarly lurid; it is also based in antiquity and contains the same extremes of emotion. In every aspect, the Vienna State Opera’s production of Strauss’s Elektra was larger than life.
Young paid close attention to Strauss’s concept of the orchestra as an equal protagonist of the voices. (This conductor’s every gesture displayed meticulous attention to the big picture as well as to details.) Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s pschyoneurotic play is derived from Sophocles’ tragedy of that name. Strauss captures all of the text’s excessively morbid, depraved lust for vengeance, demoniac frenzy, and ultrasensuality.
Amid flights of hysterical melody and nervous, tense rhythms, Strauss- Hofmannsthal delivers a tale of compelling impact and unity of music and libretto with singular power and beauty, musical characterizations brought to life precisely by vocal and instrumental forces alike. As in Salome, the music also exhibits Wagnerian traits: an overpowering orchestra, continuous music (without pauses even for individual arias), a skillfully wrought scheme of leitmotifs, and thick contrapuntal textures.
All this is sifted through elements of Italian verismo drama and heralds the lush late Romantic sentimentality of Der Rosenkavalier (1911) more than once. In Elektra’s libretto, somber horrors are matched with music of frightening dissonance, lurid melodramatic power and long stretches of polytonality. In most of his operas, Richard Strauss shifts main female characters out of their typical stereotyped gendered roles into figures that implant themselves in the center of musical-dramatic interest with clearly etched emotional viewpoints, motivations, psychological constitutions, relationships, and behavior.
Young missed none of this. The superb cast heard in June included mezzo Agnes Baltsa (as Klytämnestra); tenor Herbert Lippert (as Aegisthus); baritone Albert Dohmen (as Orestes); soprano Linda Watson (as Elektra); and soprano Anne Schwanewilms (as Chrysothemis). Largely female, the singers, both soloists and chorus, offered a distinctly polished resonance despite the opera’s underlying stance of the heroic versus the human voice. In compliance with Strauss’s score, Young drove the orchestra into billowing waves of instrumental sound continually rising up out of the pit, enveloping both singers and audience alike.
Reinforcing that effect along with Strauss’s strongly conceived emotions and characterizations, the set of Vienna’s Elektra depicted a figure larger than life: a gigantic, imposing, and midnight-black statue of a man’s legs and feet placed next to his severed head, strongly reminiscent of Strauss’s Salome, in which John the Baptist’s head is subjected to the title character’s extended orgiastic display. Don Carlo Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Vienna State Opera’s visionary new Don Carlo production of the four-act Milan version of 1884.
Welser-Möst captured the essence of the opera with compelling force, powerful introspection and vision. Elements of the grand operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer abound in Don Carlo’s extensive ensemble scenes, elaborate displays, and sense of dramatic spectacle. In every scene of the June performance, Welser-Möst delivered a full measure of Verdi’s sweeping passion and expression of vehement idealism.
On October 9, 2012, Dr. Cecelia Porter's new book release, "Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present" was presented at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC.The all-star cast included: René Pape (as Filippo II), Ramón Vargas (as Don Carlo), Simon Keenlyside (as Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa), Eric Halfvarson (as Il Grande Inquisitore), Dan Paul Dumitrescu (as Un frate/Carlo V), Krassimira Stoyanova (as Elisabetta), Luciana D’Intino (as Eboli), Ileana Tonca (as Tebaldo), Fabiola Varga-Postatny (as Contessa d’Aremberg), Carlos Osuma (as the Conte di Lerma and as Un araldo reale), and Valentina Nafornita (as the Voce dal cielo). The production’s single set was inserted with somberly gray panels; each one cleverly and smoothly opened up and brought into play for individual scenes. The staging was highly imaginative, as in the wellintegrated treatment of large crowds, sung with precision by the chorus. And, in both sections and solos, the orchestra captured every nuance of of Verdi’s opulent instrumental colors.